Decoding Fandom is a weekly column that dives deep into the world of fan culture and runs on Saturdays in the Daily Dot’s web_crawlr newsletter. If you want to get this column a day before we publish it, subscribe to web_crawlr, where you’ll get the daily scoop of internet culture delivered straight to your inbox.
What does it mean to be a fan? Scholar Henry Jenkins, the founder of fan studies, writes that fans do more than just consume media, they also repurpose media in ways that shape their identity. A fandom, then, is a group of people who are similarly passionate about a piece of pop culture and create a community based on this shared interest. Being a part of groups like this can also inform one’s identity.
As long as there have been music, books, and plays, there have been fans. Around the turn of the 20th century, a new era of fandom emerged. Sherlock Holmes fans are often considered the first fandom of modern times, and they implemented many of the practices familiar to contemporary fans, including writing fan fiction and holding public meetings.
As the 20th century progressed, much of media fandom revolved around science fiction literature, leading to the very first fan conventions in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1960s with shows like Star Trek that sci-fi fandom revolved around television and film. Within the history of fandom, Star Trek is notable for how many fan works it produced, including fan fiction, fan art, and fan magazines.
Without a doubt, the most significant innovations within fandom came with the advent of the internet. The X-Files, which premiered alongside the World Wide Web in 1993, was one of thefirst internet-based fandoms. Fans no longer had to attend conventions or send snail mail to get involved. Instead, X-Files fans congregated on web forums and created fan sites, debating the series’ lore and tracking its timelines.
The internet—and especially social media—has allowed fans to influence the content of pop culture. Today, TV writers can get online and see which storylines are and aren’t resonating with viewers, and musicians can get immediate feedback about their songs.
In the last couple of decades, fans have also taken it upon themselves to fight for their favorite media. Fans of Firefly campaigned for a movie after the series was canceled, and Veronica Mars fans paid for one. FOX canceled Lucifer after three seasons, but Netflix picked up the series following an enthusiastic fan campaign.
Social media has given fans a newfound sense of power. In some cases, fans use this power to push for more diverse fictional worlds, as we saw with the movement for better LGBTQ representation back in 2016. In other cases, online fandom can be toxic, such as the racism and sexism directed at new members of the Star Wars universe.
So much of this has to do with identity, as Jenkins outlined more than thirty years ago. Fans want media that supports their identity, which is why some fans argue for more equitable representation and others want to maintain the status quo. It’s unlikely this tension will diminish any time soon.
Why it matters
The pop culture we consume shapes us, but we also shape pop culture. Cultural literacy means understanding the context and history of mass media, and examining how and why people react to media the way they do is a big part of that.
The new Marvel movie or Beyoncé album may not matter to you personally, but the fact that it matters to others is worth considering. How can we begin to comprehend the world around us if we don’t consider the things that move people?
Fandom and identity are central components of today’s digital landscape, and they have a huge impact on internet culture as a whole.
Decoding Fandom will be your guide to this weird and wonderful world.